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Ram Seegobin on Trade union Democracy and Decolonization


The aim of this Paper is to look at the development of the trade union movement in the era of decolonization. And to note the different political currents that are in action within the movement during different moments in this history, and to put emphasis, in particular, on the spectacularly rapid development of democratic structures during the August 1979 general strike movement.


During the colonial period of the 20th Century, the British trade union traditions found their way into the nascent trade union movement in Mauritius. Some of what had been learnt over a period of 200 years in the British working class was acquired quickly by the union movement here. This influence is symbolized by the contribution of Emmanuel Anquetil. But there was the counter-current from colonial Britain: the excessive repression inflicted on the working class by the same colonial regime. So the British Labour Party via the Mauritian Labour Party brought both colonial repression and also, in a contradictory movement, some positive trade union traditions.

 The common front that was behind the Independence movement, notably the Labour Party, the unions that were almost all close to the Labour Party, together with other progressive parties and political currents like the Independent Forward Block did not last long after Independence, as it did in many other African countries. I think of Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and even South Africa, where the Party leading the Independence struggle remained closely linked to the union movement as a whole for decades.

 Only 18 months after Independence, in 1969, while Mauritius was still in the middle of a State of Emergency, the Labour Party went into a coalition with the main anti-Independence party, the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate.

 So, the working class was faced with a Labour-PMSD regime that was proposing a thoroughly capitalist development strategy. It had a ¾ majority in Parliament which maintained the State of Emergency, and which would vote the Public Order Act and the Industrial Relations Act to codify the repression against the union movement and the broad masses. It was a regime that simply postponed general elections through a Constitutional Amendment, and even banned bye-elections outright after losing one in a bitter defeat in a Labour stronghold.

 The working class was in a difficult situation after this coalition. It was paralised because it was organized in the very trade unions that were so close to the Labour Party, and the Labour Party was now in power together with the party which represented the interests of the sugar oligarchy and bosses in general. The coalition Government imposed a wage freeze. Workers were at first unable to react.

 The Labour-PMSD-Comité Action Musulmane regime used its arsenal of repression to try and contain the new wave of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist protests that then began to form around the new political party, the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, and around the new unions in the new federation, the General Workers’ Federation. This new movement preached and practiced “class struggle trade unionism”, and there were many advances made for the working class in these early days of extra-parliamentary mobilization.

 The new movement, comprising the MMM, GWF, and a series of progressive women and students organizations, rising up against imperialism and capitalism, had a number of different ideological currents in its midst, even if the class struggle one was predominant:

- A reformist, bureaucratic current.

- A populist current.

- A class struggle current that aimed at bringing socialism.

 In the late 1970’s, after having come out as the biggest party in the 1976 general elections and with great hopes for a victory with the approach of the 1982 general elections, the leadership of the MMM began to prepare for its turn towards electoralism and Parliamentarism, and to adopt what would be a new political strategy of class collaboration that it pompously called “A New Social Concensus”. The working class being organized behind the leadership of the General Workers’ Federation that was closely linked to the MMM, would have, once again, found itself paralised, just as it had been in 1969.

 But, the working class mobilized. It mobilized around a program that was conceived by all the strong sections of the working class. No to mill closures! unions must be recognized! 40-hour week or 5-day week! And all workers knew that the sugar labourers and mill workers had to organize fast to share the leadership of the working class with the dock workers and transport workers, who had their backs against the wall for sectorial reasons. Mobilization was strong, from 1978 onwards, through the general strike movement in August 1979, followed by the mobilization around the sharp “no-food no water” hunger strike, up to the nation-wide mobilization of workers supporting the long water-only hunger strike in September 1980. And this was how the working class avoided the paralysis that the MMM’s deviation from class struggle politics would have brought: the MMM political leadership, under Aneerood Jugnauth, was not in favour of the mass mobilization of 1979 and 1980. So, Paul Berenger, the MMM general secretary, in his capacity as trade union leader, was one of the leaders of the movement but he did not bring the rest of the MMM leadership. The grassroots organized as the working class.

 And it is in this kind of mobilization that a trade union movement can weaken the reformist and bureaucratic currents as well as the populist currents within it. It was in this burst of class struggle that democratic structures developed, and they developed very fast at the grassroots level of all the unions:

 - Trade union branches at the level of each enterprise, each village, each sugar estate were formed.

- All members of the unions participated actively in developing the demands, demands that could unify all parts of the working class.

- All decisions as to the strike itself were taken collectively, during the strike movements on a day to day basis. There were meetings in each neighbourhood, and then delegates took reports to the central meeting in Brabant Street in Port Louis, and once consensus was reached on what to do the next day based on the neighbourhood reports, then this decision was carried to the villages and working class parts of towns, to be discussed under street lamps at night.

- Information thus travelled in two directions. And it is interesting to note that 10,000 leaflets would be ready by the end of the central meeting for distribution in all sites. And these leaflets were all in perfect Kreol.

 The world-wide domination of the neo-liberal project since the Thatcher-Reagan implementation of right-wing economists’ “plans” was, in large part, responsible for the demobilization of the trade union movement and helped assure the bureaucratic control at the expense of the genuine democracy that had been created. The neo-liberal agenda was imposed on the working class through the repression of various Jugnauth regimes including the Labour Party and the PMSD.

 The important thing is to remember that democratic structures grow very quickly indeed, and are very advanced, during mass mobilization if the mobilization is based on a clear enough program.

 Ram Seegobin

28 July, 2018.